Nine-letter puzzle that’s 100 years old

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
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One down (nine letters): what newspaper institution was published for the first time 100 years ago this weekend?

The crossword.

This popular puzzle has been a firm favourite with readers ever since the New York World introduced the unusual looking grid-with-clues on December 21, 1913.

Now, to mark a century of fun, frustration and fuming at that last evasive answer, The Diary introduces Peter Stirling, the man responsible for your daily dose of puzzles in your favourite paper.

“Compiling crosswords for a living isn’t a usual job by any means,” says the 44-year-old. “But I love doing it. I’ve been a crossword obsessive since I was a boy. One day I saw an advert for a ‘crossword fanatic’ in the paper. I thought that’s for me.”

The Star came relatively late to the crossword party. While we were the first newspaper to print letters, it wasn’t until the early Thirties we realised a grid of blank spaces could keep readers entertained for hours.

“People love them,” says Peter, who is based in Bristol. “There’s a truism in newspapers that if you get a headline wrong then people barely notice but if we let an inaccurate crossword clue through, there’s uproar.”

Peter himself has been compiling them for this and other publications across the UK for about 15 years. He’s now head of the Press Association’s puzzle department which means he oversees 45 people producing them.

Usually, they start with a grid, fill in the answers, and think up clues from there.

“It’s a mixture of toil and inspiration,” he says. “Sometimes you’ll think of a great clue while you’re doing the washing up or something. Other times you’ve just got to sit at your desk and make them come to you.”

The perfect cryptic clue, he reckons, is a mixture of a simple description and more complex word-play.

His favourite ever is: “administered first aid when one slipped on something (7)”. The answer was dressed.

“To administer first aid is to dress a wound, and to slip on something is to get dressed,” he explains. “Lovely.”

“Why do people love crosswords?” ponders Martin Smith, The Star’s features editor who subs the daily puzzles. “It’s an enjoyable way to put life on hold, and give your brain a workout. Plus, it’s better than sudoku.”

CROSSWORDS: A BRIEF EARLY HISTORY

The very first crossword was concocted by Arthur S Wynne, a journalist from Liverpool who had recently been made games editor of the New York World.

That very first grid, appearing in the paper’s Sunday edition, had the word ‘fun’ already filled in as an example of how to solve the puzzle – a description which generations of frustrated solvers may question.

The word-cross, as it was initially called, didn’t attempt to stretch those doing it too much. One of the clues asked for a three letter plural of ‘is’.

Yet the puzzle was an instant hit with readers and it became a regular fixture of the paper.

Its name change came four weeks later when typesetters accidentally switched the two halves of word-cross and dropped the hyphen.

The first crossword book was published in 1924 by two New York publishers who ran off 3,000 copies. It went on to sell 40,000 signalling the start of a major phenomenon.

Within another five years the puzzle had spread across America and Europe.

The Star started publishing crosswords in the Thirties.